Tech: Links for 16th July, 2019

  1. “On July 3, I challenged readers of my Big Internet Math-Off pitch to try to find the way to divide 24 muffins among 25 people that makes the smallest piece as large as possible. ”
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    Click on this link to get a sense of a truly interesting math problem, and how to think about them.
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  2. “Sitting in a hotel lobby in Tangier, Morocco, Charity Wayua laughs as she recounts her journey to the city for a conference on technology and innovation. After starting her trip in Nairobi, Kenya, where she leads one of IBM’s two research centers in Africa, she had to fly past her destination for a layover in Dubai, double back to Casablanca, and then take a three-and-a-half-hour drive to Tangier. What would have been a seven- to eight-hour direct flight was instead a nearly 24-hour odyssey. This is not unusual, she says.”
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    An interesting set of links contained in this link, which speaks about how AI is being used in Africa – and you also get a sense about the opportunities and limitations in Africa.
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  3. “Then there’s Matthew Porter. He requires only a camera, model cars, and a bit of Photoshop to send muscle cars flying in his new book, The Heights. It’s a resourceful, low-tech homage to some of the most iconic, memorable stunts in the car-chase genre. “There’s just nothing more visceral than a car in the air,” he says. “It’s aspirational and romantic.””
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    These kind of tech articles are the most fun to read. Tinkering around can yield surprisingly good (and fun!) results.
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  4. “Obviously, then, what is needed is not only people with a good background in a particular field, but also people capable of making a connection between item 1 and item 2 which might not ordinarily seem connected.”
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    That is from a lovely essay by Isaac Asimov on creativity.
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  5. “A group of researchers have now used this technique to munch through 3.3 million scientific abstracts published between 1922 and 2018 in journals that would likely contain materials science research. The resulting word relationships captured fundamental knowledge within the field, including the structure of the periodic table and the way chemicals’ structures relate to their properties. The paper was published in Nature last week.”
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    A very short, but no less delightful read on some of the more mind boggling applications of AI.
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Tech: Links for 9th July, 2019

  1. “In it, astronaut Sally Jansen has been working to come to grips with a Mars mission that went disastrously wrong, and NASA ended its crewed missions into space. But while she’s trying to move on, scientists detect an object designated 2I/2044 D1 entering our solar system, and when it begins to slow down, they realize that it’s an alien artifact. Jansen is called in to try and intercept the object and figure out what is behind it before it reaches Earth.”
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    Science Fiction is a great way to learn a lot and have a lot of fun while doing so, and for that reason, I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the premise of this book. In similar vein, I recently (and finally) finished The Three Body Problem, and can heartily recommend it.
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  2. “The camera was loaded with machine vision algorithms trained by Hamm himself. They identified whether Metric was coming or going and whether he had prey in his mouth. If the answer was “yes,” the cat flap would lock for 15 minutes and Hamm would get a text. (In a nice flourish, the system also sends a donation, or “blood money” as Hamm calls it, to the National Audubon Society, which protects the birds cats love to kill.)”
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    There are many people who bandy about the word AI these days, but this very short read (and within it, a very entertaining video) helps you understand how it could by applied in myriad ways.
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  3. “LightSail 2 is more ambitious and will actually try to maneuver through space, and even boost itself into different orbits using sunlight. The new mission’s mission control website will let people around the world follow along, including the 23,331 people who contributed to the project’s Kickstarter campaign, which raised $1,241,615 for the spacecraft.”
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    A third link from the same website (either The Verge is on fire, or I am being lazy today), but the best of the lot, in my opinion. It is now possible to crowdfund a satellite launch that contains a sail – and you can now watch your investment in space as it flies above your head. What a time to be alive.
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  4. “But while Tufte’s concerns are not limited to charts, he has spent a lifetime thinking through what he called the “perennial” problem of how to represent a multidimensional world in the two dimensions of the page or screen. At the end of the day, he pulled out a first edition of Galileo Galilei to show how the great minds of the past had grappled with the same issues. He rhapsodized over Galileo’s tiny, in-line sketches of Saturn, which clearly inspired his own advocacy of “sparklines” (tiny charts embedded in text at the same size as the text), as well as some beautifully precise illustrations of sunspots.”
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    Data visualization, medical visits, Galileo and sparklines. As they say, self-recommending.
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  5. “And with 92 percent of future jobs globally requiring digital skills, there’s a focus on helping students develop skills for careers that don’t yet exist. Last year, Sweden declared coding a core subject to be taught from the first year of primary school. And there is an appetite for these skills among students, too, with 85 percent of Brazilians from 16-23 indicating that they want to work in the technology sector. ”
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    Well, there’s a thought – I refer to Sweden’s decision. One, complements, not substitutes. Two, the links are worth following in this link – this is a subject very close to my heart.

Tech: Links for 2nd July, 2019

Five articles from tech, but about something that took place about twelve years ago.

  1. “One of the most important trends in personal technology over the past few years has been the evolution of the humble cellphone into a true handheld computer, a device able to replicate many of the key functions of a laptop. But most of these “smart phones” have had lousy software, confusing user interfaces and clumsy music, video and photo playback. And their designers have struggled to balance screen size, keyboard usability and battery life.”
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    Thus began Walt Mossberg’s review of the first ever iPhone. That review is fun to read in order to understand how far smartphones have come since then, and we we took for granted then, and do now.
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  2. “With the iPhone XS and Apple Neural Engine, the input isn’t an image, it’s the data right off the sensors. It’s really kind of nuts how fast the iPhone XS camera is doing things in the midst of capturing a single image or frame of video. One method is to create an image and then apply machine learning to it. The other is to apply machine learning to create the image. One way Apple is doing this with video is by capturing additional frames between frames while shooting 30 FPS video, even shooting 4K. The whole I/O path between the sensor and the Neural Engine is so fast the iPhone XS camera system can manipulate 4K video frames like Neo dodging bullets in The Matrix.”
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    That was then, this is now – well, this is also last year. John Gruber on how far we’ve come – he reviews the iPhone XS, and reading both reviews one after the other points to how far we’ve come.
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  3. “…I’m not convinced that anyone at Google fully thought through the implication of favoring Android with their services. Rather, the Android team was fully committed to competing with iOS — as they should have been! — and human nature ensured that the rest of Google came along for the ride. Remember, given Google’s business model, winning marketshare was perfectly correlated with reaping outsized profits; it is easy to see how the thinking and culture that developed around Google’s core business failed to adjust to the zero-sum world of physical devices. And so, as that Gundotra speech exemplified, Android winning became synonymous with Google winning, when in fact Android was as much ouroboros as asset.”
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    It’s not just technology that changed then – entire ecosystems and business models had to be changed, updated, pilfered. Microsoft, obviously, but most significantly, Google.
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  4. “There’s that word I opened with: “future”. As awesome as our smartphones are, it seems unlikely that this is the end of computing. Keep in mind that one of the reasons all those pre-iPhone smartphone initiatives failed, particularly Microsoft’s, is that their creators could not imagine that there might be a device more central to our lives than the PC. Yet here we are in a world where PCs are best understood as optional smartphone accessories.I suspect we will one day view our phones the same way: incredibly useful devices that can do many tasks better than anything else, but not ones that are central for the simple reason that they will not need to be with us all of the time. After all, we will have our wearables.”
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    One risk that all of us run is to think of the future in terms of what exists now – which is one reason why 2007 was such big news for tech and then for all of us. What might a similar moment be in the near future? Earlier, you had to have a computer, and it was nice to have a smartphone. Now, you have to have a smartphone, and it is nice to have a computer. When might it be nice to have a smartphone, while you have to have a ‘wearable’?
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  5. “The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is developing a new “Molecular Informatics” program that uses molecules as computers. “Chemistry offers a rich set of properties that we may be able to harness for rapid, scalable information storage and processing,” Anne Fischer, program manager in DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office, said in a statement. “Millions of molecules exist, and each molecule has a unique three-dimensional atomic structure as well as variables such as shape, size, or even color. This richness provides a vast design space for exploring novel and multi-value ways to encode and process data beyond the 0s and 1s of current logic-based, digital architectures.” ”
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    Not just the rather unimaginable (to me, at any rate) thought of molecules as computers (did I get that right?!), but also a useful timeline of how calendars have evolved. Also note how the rate of “getting better” has gotten faster over time!

Tech: Links for 25th June, 2019

I have linked to some of these piece in the past, but this set of posts is still useful in terms of creating a common set of links in one place for you to understand how to think about Aggregation Theory. If you can afford it, I heavily recommend Stratechery!

  1. “What is the critical differentiator for incumbents, and can some aspect of that differentiator be digitized?
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    If that differentiator is digitized, competition shifts to the user experience, which gives a significant advantage to new entrants built around the proper incentives
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    Companies that win the user experience can generate a virtuous cycle where their ownership of consumers/users attracts suppliers which improves the user experience”
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    Begin here: this piece explains what aggregation theory is all about, and why it matters.
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  2. “Super-Aggregators operate multi-sided markets with at least three sides — users, suppliers, and advertisers — and have zero marginal costs on all of them. The only two examples are Facebook and Google, which in addition to attracting users and suppliers for free, also have self-serve advertising models that generate revenue without corresponding variable costs (other social networks like Twitter and Snapchat rely to a much greater degree on sales-force driven ad sales).”
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    Aggregators on steroids: what exactly makes Google and Facebook what they are? This article helps you understand this clearly. Also read the article on super aggregators itself.
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  3. “There is a clear pattern for all four companies: each controls, to varying degrees, the entry point for customers to the category in which they compete. This control of the customer entry point, by extension, gives each company power over the companies actually supplying what each company “sells”, whether that be content, goods, video, or life insurance.”
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    This article explains the FANG playbook, and how they became what they are today: Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google.
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  4. “To explain why, it is worth examining all four companies with regards to:Whether or not they have a durable monopoly
    What anticompetitive behavior they are engaging in
    What remedies are available
    What will happen in the future with and without regulator intervention”
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    Ben Thompson states just above this paragraph that he is neither a lawyer nor an economist. But the last two questions in the list above show that he’d make a pretty good economist. He is, in essence, asking what is the opportunity cost of breaking up these firms. As the song goes: with the bad comes the good, and the good comes the bad.
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  5. “All those apps are doing is providing an algorithm that lowers search costs and makes booking easy. Expedia didn’t design, build and maintain the airplane that flew him to Sydney; build or operate the airport; train pilots; or find, produce, refine and transport the necessary jet fuel to power the plane over its continental voyage. Uber didn’t design and manufacture the car used to transport him to his hotel; find, produce, and process the raw materials that go into it (such as steel and aluminium); or actually drive him from the airport to his hotel. AirBnB didn’t design, build, maintain, or clean the house he stayed in, nor supply it with electricity. UberEats and OpenTable didn’t grow and process any raw foodstuffs, or use them to cook a meal, and TripAdvisor didn’t design, manufacture or operate any of the tourist attractions he visited.In fact, all these companies did was write some pretty simple code that made matching buyers with sellers easier and more efficient, and the real question that should be being asked is whether these platform companies are extracting too much value from the supply chain relative to their value-add, and whether that is likely to be a sustainable situation in the long term, or will invite potential disruption and/or an eventual supply-side/regulatory response.”
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    BUT, on the other hand, perhaps this is just old wine in a new bottle?

Tech:Links for 18th June, 2019

  1. “”I did my first valuation of Tesla in 2013, and undershot the mark, partly because I saw its potential market as luxury cars (smaller), and partly because I under estimated how much it would be able to extract in production from the Fremont plant. Over time, I have compensated for both mistakes, giving Tesla access to a bigger (albeit, still upscale) market and more growth, while reinvesting less than the typical auto company. In spite of these adjustments, I have consistently come up with valuations well below the price, finding the stock to be valued at about half its price only a year ago. This year marks a turning point, as I find Tesla to be under valued, albeit by only a small fraction. Even in the midst of my most negative posts on Tesla, I confessed that I like the company (though not Elon Musk’s antics as CEO and financial choices) and that I would one day own the stock. That day may be here, as I put in a limit buy order at $180/share, knowing fully well that, if I do end up as a shareholder, this company will test my patience and sanity.”
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    The forever excellent Aswath Damodaran on his latest valuation of Tesla, and now he even has skin in the game. If you want to understand how to value a company, you can’t do better than Prof. Damodaran, and if you want to begin with a particularly challenging, but inevitably interesting company, you can’t do better than Tesla. For both of these reasons, worth reading in some detail.
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  2. “Since it began operations in 2010, Uber has grown to the point where it now collects over $45 billion in gross passenger revenue, and it has seized a major share of the urban car service market. But the widespread belief that it is a highly innovative and successful company has no basis in economic reality.An examination of Uber’s economics suggests that it has no hope of ever earning sustainable urban car service profits in competitive markets. Its costs are simply much higher than the market is willing to pay, as its nine years of massive losses indicate. Uber not only lacks powerful competitive advantages, but it is actually less efficient than the competitors it has been driving out of business.”
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    Speaking of tech and automobile companies, this article is an extremely bearish take on Uber – with fairly convincing reasons to boot. A very long, but ultimately very convincing (and depressing) read. The party ought to end soon.
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  3. “Uber also has a very limited ‘network’ effect, because drivers can and do jump to whatever platform offers them the best terms – indeed most Uber drivers use all available platforms, and they accept rides from the platform offering them the highest rates – and customers can do the same (most customers have multiple ride-hailing apps on the phones, and can easily choose the cheapest). This means that even if Uber survives, it will likely always remain an extremely low margin business.”
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    Another take on the same issue – I don’t necessarily agree with all the economic arguments made in the piece – for example, I think the cost of owning a car as opposed to hiring one for a drive is under-emphasized – but the broader conclusion is all but inevitable.
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  4. “The Tesla position would presumably be that the addition of LIDAR would not have materially avoided the car accident and loss of lives, but this is going to be tough to showcase since in theory any use of LIDAR is going to incrementally improve the safety odds, assuming it is used wisely, and so it’s another part of the uphill climb by Tesla to avoid getting summarily dinged for their lack of LIDAR.They also cannot make the argument that they did not know about LIDAR or were somehow unaware of it, which is quite obviously not the case, including that their self-offered anti-LIDAR rhetoric acting as their own admission that they knew about LIDAR and made a deliberate decision to intentionally exclude it.”
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    Read this article to get a sense of what LIDAR is, and why it is important (or not) in the world of autonomous driving – but also read this article to get a sense of how cost-benefit arguments work in the real world, along with a great way to understand opportunity costs.
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  5. “Americans associate electric cars with the luxury of Tesla, the unrivaled conveyance of choice for the Sand Hill Road set. But these newly assembled vehicles, part of a family of SUVs called the Tang that retails from about 240,000 yuan ($35,700), are aimed squarely at middle-class drivers in the world’s largest electric vehicle market, China. Their manufacturer, BYD Co., is in turn the No. 1 producer of plug-in vehicles globally, attracting a tiny fraction of the attention of Elon Musk’s company while powering, to a significant extent, a transition to electrified mobility that’s moving faster in China than in any other country. Founded in Shenzhen in the mid-1990s as a manufacturer of batteries for brick-size cellphones and digital cameras, BYD now has about a quarter-million employees and sells as many as 30,000 pure EVs or plug-in hybrids in China every month, most of them anything but status symbols. Its cheapest model, the e1, starts at 60,000 yuan ($8,950) after subsidies.”
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    Uber, Tesla, sure. But have you heard of BYD? Or put another way, China had to come up sooner or later.

Tech: Links for 11th June, 2019

  1. “Microsoft now generates about $7.5 billion in annual revenue from web search advertising. That is a pipsqueak compared with Google’s $120 billion in ad sales over the last 12 months. But it’s more revenue brought in by either Microsoft’s LinkedIn professional network or the company’s line of Surface computers and other hardware.How did Bing go from a joke to generating nearly three times the advertising revenue of Twitter? Bing is emblematic of what Microsoft has become under Satya Nadella, the CEO since 2014: less flashy and less inclined to tilt at windmills in favor of pragmatism.”
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    A nice (and at least to, somewhat surprising) read about how Bing isn’t an utter failure – far from it. It isn’t Google, of course, and probably never will be, but the article highlights how starting Bing was in retrospect useful for many different reasons.
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  2. “One effect of Donald Trump’s sanctions on China’s tech giant Huawei seems to be a growing nationalistic sentiment among some Chinese consumers: sales of iPhones have fallen in recent months, while Huawei products have seen an uptick. It isn’t hard to find patriotic slogans backing the embattled company on social-media platforms such as Weibo.”
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    The article speaks about the possible “Balkanization” of technology, and one can easily imagine a fairly dystopian view of the future as a consequence of this. Not saying that this will happen, to be clear – but the possibility should be contemplated.
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  3. “Lena Edlund, a Columbia University economist, and Cecilia Machado, of the Getulio Vargas Foundation, lay out the data in a new National Bureau of Economic Research working paper. They estimate that the diffusion of phones could explain 19 to 29 percent of the decline in homicides seen from 1990 to 2000.“The cellphones changed how drugs were dealt,” Edlund told me. In the ’80s, turf-based drug sales generated violence as gangs attacked and defended territory, and also allowed those who controlled the block to keep profits high.The cellphone broke the link, the paper claims, between turf and selling drugs. “It’s not that people don’t sell or do drugs anymore,” Edlund explained to me, “but the relationship between that and violence is different.””
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    Staring at phones the whole day may actually have saved lives. Who’d have thought? The rest of the article is a nice summary of other hypotheses about why crime in the USA went down over the years.
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  4. “The current state of monetization in podcasting mirrors the early internet: revenue lags behind attention. Despite double-digit percent growth in podcast advertising over the last few years, podcasts are still in a very nascent, disjointed stage of monetization today.”
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    A rather long article about podcasting as a business today, but I found it interesting. The reasons I found it interesting: I have a very small, fledgling podcast of my own, monetization in podcasting hasn’t taken off, and I remain sceptical that it ever really will, and most importantly, listening to podcasts is truly instructive.
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  5. The camera app VSCO is unlike its social counterparts. Though it has a feed similar to Facebook’s News Feed and Twitter’s Timeline, it doesn’t employ any of the tricks meant to keep you hooked. VSCO doesn’t display follower or like counts, and it doesn’t sort its feed with an algorithm. Instead of optimizing toward keeping you on its app, VSCO — which last reported 30 million monthly active users — simply encourages you to shoot and edit photos and videos, regardless of whether you post them or not.
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    Speaking of monetization, this newsletter tells you how VCSO has funded itself – and speaks about pricing in general when it comes to technology today.